Republicanism can unite a new left

At Communist University ’97, Dave Craig of the RDG challenged Phil Stott of SML (see Weekly Worker July 31) over its policy on Scottish devolution

The old Britain built on the post war social contract, the Elizabethan welfare state, is in terminal decline. A new Britain is struggling to be born. The monarchy is the symbol of the old order. It is still the rallying point for all the capitalist parties, Tories, New Labour and Lib Dems. Like the old Britain, their flag is looking dirty, corrupt and shot full of holes.

Republicanism is the symbol of the new Britain waiting to be born. It will become the rallying point for the new left, emerging from the defeats of the 1980s. Already Tony Benn, Arthur Scargill and the Socialist Labour Party, Scottish Socialist Alliance, Scottish Militant Labour, the CPGB, Republican Worker Tendency, Revolutionary Democratic Group (faction of the SWP) have all raised the republican flag. But we need to raise the flag much higher, so that everybody around us can see it. It is no good keeping it in our back pocket. We must use the Scottish and Welsh referenda to put republicanism to the fore.

Republicanism is not simply about the unity of the new emerging left. It can be a pole of attraction for millions. In Northern Ireland, there is a significant and indeed militant republican minority amongst the working class. In England and Wales, passive republicanism has infected about 25-30% of the electorate. In Scotland, it is estimated that there is a majority in favour of a republic. Unfortunately the British left, besotted with the Labour party, has lagged massively behind this shift in public opinion.

In the late 1980s, the poll tax became the focal point for left unity and mass mobilisation. The Militant Tendency played a leading role in that struggle. Now in the late 1990s, the crisis of the old order has raised politics to a higher level. From an issue of local taxation, we have to move on to the political system itself. Now it is the abolition of the constitutional monarchist system of government that can unite the new left, north and south of the border.

The demand for a federal republic of England, Scotland, and Wales and a united Ireland is a specific application of republicanism to the United Kingdom. It is no more than a transitional democratic demand. It raises directly the question of working class unity. We are fighting to unite the working class of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland around this common demand.

The SML’s demand for a “sovereign parliament with full powers” is not a clear republican slogan. At best it is ambiguous. At worst it means adapting oneself to the agenda of reforming the constitutional monarchy. It is an echo of the Scottish National Party’s demand for a “sovereign parliament for a sovereign people” by which they mean independence under the crown and not a republic.

The slogan of a parliament with full powers could be used in Wales or Scotland. But it has no meaning for England. In the northern Irish context it is reactionary. By adopting this slogan, the SML shows that it does not begin from the need to unite the working class in the different parts of the union with a common demand. It has invented a Scottish slogan for a Scottish people (which coincidentally could be used as a Welsh slogan for a Welsh people)

Phil Stott (SML) did not mention the word republic once in his entire speech. His strategic conception was either devolution or independence. The slogan of a parliament with full powers fits neatly into that strategic conception. The tactical question is therefore whether Blair’s devolution is a step towards independence (or full powers), or a barrier to it. Within this perspective the SNP, like the SML, has decided it is a step forward and therefore ‘yes yes’ is the correct tactic.

Our disagreement with SML is therefore not primarily about tactics. It is about strategy. We cannot sensibly speak about tactical disagreement without having an agreed strategy. If the SML, the Socialist Party, the CPGB and RDG etc. were all agreed to fight north and south for a federal republic, then we could debate sensibly whether ‘yes, yes’ or boycott was the best tactic to advance the republican cause.

Significantly, Phil Stott failed to clarify whether the SML has a republican or a pro-independence strategy. It serves the interests of the SML to keep the debate confined to the level of tactics. Then it can be presented as a squabble between those taking a pragmatic view of democratic reform and those who are into leftist posturing. This is a convenient smokescreen.

The truth is that SML has not adopted a republican strategy. Despite its apparent break with Labourism, it is still stuck in the devolution versus independence rut. The growth of republican sentiment, taking place under its nose, is reflected in the motion passed by the SSA calling for a democratic republic, with a federal relationship to the other nations. Unfortunately the SML has no tactics or indeed any ideas about how to fight for this. It was a classic example of “resolutionary” socialism. They voted for it, but they do not know what it means or how to fight for it now. Urging us to vote ‘yes, yes’ is nothing to do with republicanism.

The Scottish people will not understand our tactics unless we explain clearly our strategy. Those who want to confine the debate to the tactics of voting in the referendum, are treating the Scottish people with contempt. The working class demand for a republic is a revolutionary one. As internationalists, we are fighting to unite the working class of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. We want to unite the working class to abolish the constitutional monarchy, not patch it up with reforms. We want to mobilise the working class movement to achieve this aim. The stronger are the working class republican forces, the more democratic reforms will be forthcoming from the ruling class.

The Blair referendum is a golden opportunity to gather the left and progressive forces around the republican flag and explain the case for republicanism and working class unity. Unfortunately this has not happened. The SSA, which could have been the focal point for this, has split. Different parts of the SSA have supported three different campaigns, the (anti-republican) Scotland Forward, the (non-republican) Campaign for Genuine Self Determination and the (pro-republican) Campaign for a Scottish Republic. The Edinburgh SSA argues for a republic, whereas Glasgow SSA fails to do this and wants devolution with full powers.

The question of how we should vote in the referendum is a tactical question and therefore subordinate to the republican strategy. It is not a moral question about who is more leftwing than somebody else. In theory we can have a republican ‘yes, yes’ as well as republican boycott. The case for republican boycott needs to be clearly stated.

First, there is no automatic connection between a Scottish Assembly and a federal republic or indeed any republic. One does not lead to the other. The 300 year old Westminster Parliament did not ‘lead’ to a British republic. The division of Ireland in 1922 was not ‘a step towards’ a united Ireland. On the contrary, it set back the achievement of a united republic for at least seventy years.

There is no connection between one form of constitution and another except through the class struggle. The real motive force towards a Scottish republic or federal republic is the struggle between the republican working class (organised by the SSA?) against the monarchist bourgeoisie, led by Blair’s New Labour. It is a struggle for mass support.

Blair’s Scotland Forward has succeeded in the same proportion that the SSA is split over strategy and tactics. He is creating a ‘new right’, a broad popular front of Labourites, Lib Dems, left Tories, the SNP. The ‘new right’ bloc unites all those who want to save the monarchy by reforming it. Instead of leading the republican left in opposition to this, the SML joined the ‘new right’. The basic lesson of the referendum campaign is that the left in Scotland is weak and disunited.

It is not a question of democratic reform, but of class politics. The Scottish Assembly is the policy of the bourgeois Labour Party. SML has quite correctly identified Labour as a party that serves the interests of the capitalist class. In government, this policy is now the policy of the dominant part of the bourgeoisie, which is backing Blair. The referendum is now of vital importance to the bourgeoisie. Their popular front is about reintegrating the masses around a reformed constitutional monarchy. They intend to use it to restabilise the constitution. The ballot will give massive democratic legitimacy to Labour’s plans. Around the ‘new right’ bloc, Blair aims to create a new democratic consensus. Labour will say - you wanted it, you were promised it, you voted for it and now you are getting what you voted for. Now shut up and wait patiently for a few years!

Liberal reformers want democratic reform but are terrified of class struggle. If the ruling class is prepared to concede democratic reform, the bourgeois liberalism (ie Labour) will offer as little as possible, introduced as slowly as possible. The Assembly will not sit for three years. It will be at least two or three years before the people have a chance to get over the “honeymoon” and to see the reality. The Scottish Assembly is designed to keep the issue off the streets for at least five to seven years. Of course, they will want the working class to vote for this and for workers’ organisations to say thank you. So there is a role that the bourgeoisie wants the SML to play.

Working class republicans must not join or support Labour’s anti-republican pro-bourgeois bloc. On the contrary, we want to smash that bloc. The working class must have a policy independent of both the Labour and Tory parties. We must use the referendum to make that very, very clear. Working class republicans will not be waiting for five to seven years. As soon as the referendum result is declared we will say - ‘We didn’t want it, and we didn’t vote for it’. We were promised nothing. We got nothing. But we are continuing to fight now for a federal republic and a united Ireland with the working class of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Finally let us take the analogy between Scottish devolution and the minimum wage. Both policies address real problems, poverty wages and political discontent in Scotland. The liberal bourgeoisie proposes ‘solutions’ which aim to head off dissatisfaction and class struggle. The minimum wage will institutionalise poverty pay. If we had a referendum on a £3.50 minimum wage, the Tories would vote against and Labour would vote ‘yes’. What would SML do? Presumably they would not want to vote ‘no’ with the Tories. Would they vote ‘yes’ to £3.50? Or would they use the opportunity to start up an independent socialist campaign for a decent living wage for every worker?

The latter position, far from being utopian, is the only practical policy if the aim is to stir up justifiable anger against poverty, and encourage the working class to have its own policy and its own party to fight for this. The tactic of boycotting a “referendum for poverty wages” would be quite legitimate and not an ultra-left tactic. Equally we need an independent class policy on the question of bourgeois democracy.

The final question that I want to put to Phil Stott is this. Given that the Scottish Assembly is the bourgeois policy of the bourgeois Labour party, and given that a massive vote will give Blair’s ‘new right’ bloc ideological hegemony in Scotland, why would SML puts its good name, its hard won reputation, its seal of approval, on this New Labour policy? Is it out of ignorance? SML are very keen to stand candidates for the new Assembly. Do they think that they have to vote ‘yes’ in order to do this? If so, this is ignorance of our history. The Bolsheviks boycotted the Duma and then later turned round and stood candidates. Those who urge a boycott have no compunction against standing candidates should the Assembly come into operation. SML does not need to sacrifice its reputation for fighting the policies of Kinnock and Blair in order to stand candidates three years later.

Or is it because SML has got a deal with other political forces? Is SML saying ‘yes, yes’ because of some secret deal it have behind the scenes? If so, we are entitled to ask it to tell us what it is (Phil Stott was shaking his head at this point to indicate there was no deal). In which case, if it is not ignorance of Bolshevik history, and there is no deal with other forces, then SML is giving its seal of approval to Blair’s policy for nothing. This can only be called political stupidity. Either ignorance, a deal, or stupidity. I would like to ask Phil which it is?